Language of Rights January 08, 2021

Can the human rights framework drive real change?

Akwe Amosu
The Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights

To talk with South African human rights lawyer Kayum Ahmed for the podcast and hear someone with his insight and experience express doubt that human rights can address patterns of deep inequality was bracing.  

As we chatted after the interview, he recalled an episode from his time as the CEO of South African’s Human Rights Commission to illustrate his point. In 2010, at South Africa’s University of the Free State (UFS) — a university historically associated with the white Afrikaner establishment, there was a school-wide ruling to establish racially-integrated residence halls. Some white students launched a video competition to challenge the policy and one of the submissions depicted a group of black campus workers being humiliated by white students who instructed them to drink large amounts of alcohol, and to eat food allegedly contaminated with urine, among other things. The Reitz video, as it came to be known, sought to demonstrate that black people could not be integrated into white society, and caused an uproar across South Africa. 

As the representative of the Human Rights Commission, Kayum and his colleagues responded to the UFS incident by convening negotiations between UFS workers and students about accountability measures and new mechanisms for recovery. “[The conversations] were an opportunity to heal the injustices of the past and to move things forward, which is exactly what human rights compels us to do,” says Kayum. “I recall the students apologizing and the representative from the workers saying to them: ‘You have always been our children and you will always remain our children.’ And I just thought, here is a woman who is old enough to be a parent to these 18 and 19 year old white kids, showing such empathy for them… It struck me how whiteness as a system was so woven into the fabric of our South African society, that deference to whiteness — to these white children who embodied power and whiteness — was something that just came automatically.”

Kayum’s experience at UFS fueled his sense that the human rights framework was ill-equipped to respond to the abuse that had been perpetrated. “We negotiated a settlement that was lauded across Africa as a victory for human rights. [And yet] ten years later, I’m reflecting back on this moment and wonder whether it was such a victory after all. These white students went on to start their own businesses, many of them were farmers.  But these black workers —  nothing has materially changed for them.” He adds: “We paid restitution – an undisclosed amount – I was one of the witnesses to the agreement. But what I’m suggesting is that even though human rights frameworks allow for restitution, I question whether that is sufficient to undo the system of oppression that gave rise to such a moment.”

You can hear my interview with Kayum Ahmed in Episode 3 of our podcast.